Utah book bans: Removing titles statewide would be easier under new proposal

The draft legislation would also expand who may challenge a book, to include elected officials who represent an area where a school district or charter sits.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lily Aguilar, 10, reads in the Children's Section of the Ruth Vine Tyler Library, Nov. 23, 2021. New draft legislation would make it easier to remove books from schools statewide, and it would expand who may challenge a book to include elected officials.

A single book would be removed from schools statewide if at least three Utah school districts banned the same book, or at least one Utah school district and five charter schools did, according to a new proposal that state lawmakers are considering.

The newly suggested threshold would make removing titles statewide easier and specifically centers on “objective sensitive material” — pornographic or otherwise indecent material that does not have “literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors,” as outlined by Utah law.

The draft legislation is sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who did not immediately respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment. It was publicly released late Monday ahead of a planned discussion early Wednesday of the potential new threshold, among other initiatives.

Even if the Education Interim Committee were to approve the proposed changes Wednesday, the measure would still need to pass during the upcoming legislative session. Chairs of the committee Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, and Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The proposal would also expand who may challenge a book. Current law allows only those affiliated with a school or school district to challenge a book, but this proposal would also allow elected officials who represent “all or part” of where a school district or charter school sits to submit challenges.

How books would be removed

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sticky note marking banned books in Utah sits in the Children's Reading Room in Ken Sanders' space at the Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

According to the proposal, if a person were to challenge a book, the title would then undergo a required review process.

A “local education agency” would conduct the review: a school district’s board; a charter school’s governing board; or the state board for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, the draft legislation states. The Utah attorney general’s office would help compile guidance and training for such reviews, it adds.

That review would then evaluate a key difference — whether the “sensitive” material meets “objective” or “subjective” removal standards.

Both standards pertain to content that is considered pornographic or indecent, as defined by Utah law. But “objective” sensitive material is considered inherently pornographic or indecent in nature, Pierucci has told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“The definition of objective sensitive materials is incredibly clear,” Pierucci previously said. “And it does paint a bright red line of what is pornographic, and it’s tied to the criminal definition of porn.”

If after an initial review, a title meets that “objective” criteria, it is removed immediately, according to the draft legislation. And if enough school districts or charters do so under the newly proposed threshold, it would trigger statewide removal from not just classrooms, school libraries or school property, but also from school-sponsored assemblies, lectures or other events, the proposal states.

If a title does not meet that “objective” criteria, it would then be reviewed to determine whether it’s considered “subjective” sensitive material, the proposal states — material that may not meet Utah’s definition of pornography or indecency but is otherwise considered “harmful” to youth because it “appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors,” among other balancing standards, including that it has no serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

During that “subjective” review period, students may have access to the challenged book with parental permission, according to the draft proposal. But if it’s ultimately considered subjective sensitive material, the book is removed.

Such a determination by enough districts or charters would not trigger the statewide ban, though, because the proposed threshold only applies to objective sensitive material, the draft legislation states.

Challenging material more than once

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, last month said the draft legislation aims to implement a standardized process for reviewing sensitive materials.

If one person makes three “unsuccessful” challenges during a given school year, they wouldn’t be able to trigger another sensitive material review for the rest of that academic year, the draft legislation states.

But that person would be able to appeal a local education agency’s previous decision, no matter if a title was removed or retained. The appeal would then be brought to a vote in a public meeting to decide the outcome, the proposal states.

Under the draft legislation, local education officials would be prohibited from enacting polices that would prevent them from revisiting a previous decision; reconsidering a challenged material based on additional information; and reviewing recommendations from staff or parent committees regarding challenged material.

The state would also legally defend school employees and officials found to have done their due diligence under state law should a challenger allege they failed to properly review or remove sensitive materials, according to the draft legislation.

Pierucci last month said the draft legislation aims to implement a standardized process for reviewing sensitive materials. “Everyone had a different way of doing it, and they were not all in compliance with the law,” she said in October.

At the time, a draft of the proposed legislation outlined that if more than four school districts — or more than nine charter schools — classified a title as “objective” sensitive material, the title would be banned statewide. The threshold outlined in the latest draft released Monday is tighter.

Pierucci did not immediately comment on the change Tuesday, but previously said she thinks there’s been a lot of “misinformation” regarding what kind of books the Legislature is trying to remove.

“No one’s trying to get classics out of the classroom,” Pierucci said. “They’re trying to get the pornographic materials out.” For instance, she said if a book features an LGBTQ couple, it would not be removed for that reason alone. Content within it would still need to meet sensitive material standards, she said.

The Salt Lake Tribune in October compiled a list of 262 books removed across 17 Utah school districts. The targeted titles included a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award, and another that topped a nationwide list for “Best Fiction for Young Adults.”

Washington County School District sat at No. 1 with 54 titles pulled. Many of those books — as in other districts — are about the LGBTQ community.

Next was Granite School District with 53 removed books; Davis School District with 50; Alpine School District with 41; and Canyons School District with 25, The Tribune’s review found.

Those top five districts collectively account for 223 titles removed in the state. And together, they oversee 42% of the public K-12 students in Utah. Explore The Tribune’s database of banned books here.